Offensive Outburst From Craft Fuels Buckeyes To Sweet 16
On numerous occasions this season Ohio State head coach Thad Matta has referred to point guard Aaron Craft as the best defensive player in the nation. After Craft’s performance in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, it was the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year’s offense that had everybody talking.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Craft scored 17 points and recorded a season-high 10 assists on Saturday, helping the No. 2-seeded Buckeyes (29-7, 13-5 Big Ten) survive its third round matchup against Gonzaga (26-7, 13-3 WCC) with a 73-66 win over the No. 7-seeded Bulldogs. The Findlay product’s first career double-double played a pivotal role in allowing OSU to advance to its program’s third-consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.
“It always helps when you make your first couple baskets. They did a good job of focusing on Jared (Sullinger) and focusing on the other guys, that just kind of left me a little open,” Craft said. “Fortunately enough, I knocked a couple down. That just gives you confidence for the rest of the game.”
A billed battle of the big men was put on delay when OSU forward Jared Sullinger picked up his second foul with more than nine minutes remaining in the first half. Sitting on the bench and in foul trouble, Sullinger could only watch as the Bulldogs stretched their lead out to seven points with eight minutes left in the half.
“That's when I take the basketball jersey off and put on the pom‑poms and start cheerleading for the guys,” Sullinger said. “I thought that was the biggest thing, just try to stay in tune with the game, just try to encourage everybody to play basketball.”
Just three minutes after the Buckeyes lost their post presence to foul trouble, Gonzaga suffered a similar fate when center Robert Sacre picked up his second foul, forcing the 7-footer to watch the final six minutes of the first half from the bench. Just as Sullinger’s was for OSU, Sacre’s absence proved to be a costly one.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Thanks in part to 10-consecutive points from forward Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes closed the first half on a 16-7 run, with a lay-up by Craft giving OSU a 39-37 advantage heading into halftime.
“We were able to pick each other up and pat each other on the back and keep rolling,” OSU guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. said. “Things didn’t go our way but we didn’t cry about it. We just got stronger. That’s what men do.”
With Sullinger back on the floor, the Buckeyes’ momentum carried over into the second half with OSU extending its lead to as many as 10 points with 14 minutes remaining in the game. But the Bulldogs had one last surge in them.
Switching to a 2-3 zone defense, Gonzaga managed to claw its way back into the game, limiting the Buckeyes to just nine points over the course of the next 10 minutes. A Elias Harris 3-point shot capped a 19-9 run for the Bulldogs, and tied the game at 61 with four minutes remaining.
“It just kind of slowed us down,” Craft said of the Gonzaga zone. “The whole game we were trying to attack them. When they switched defenses, I think we kind of stopped. We kind of played a little more passive.”
With the score reset and a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, fans got what was advertised when Sullinger began attacking Sacre in the post. After 36 minutes in which Sacre appeared to get the best of the Buckeye big man, it was Sullinger who ultimately came out victorious, using a lay-up, a jump shot, and a pair of free throws to help give OSU a seven-point lead with 34 second left in the game.
“Down the stretch we wanted to get the ball in his hands. I'll be honest with you, we were running a couple things out of the post that proved to be pretty good for us,” OSU coach Thad Matta said after the game. “He's a winner. We'll ride that down the stretch.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
Sullinger scored a team-high 18 points, a number that was matched by Thomas, who also pulled down seven rebounds. In addition to his stellar effort on the offensive end of the court, Craft was his usual self on defense, holding Gonzaga guard and leading scorer Kevin Pangos to 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting.
“He's the guy that makes their team go and he can score in a variety of ways. Starting of the game, he hit me with a spin‑floater‑type shot and I was a little worried,” Craft said of Pangos. “I just try to keep grinding it out. Our team did a great job hedging ball screens at times and helping on staggers. It's a fun matchup. It's always great to go up against another great guard, and he's definitely one of them.”
With the opening weekend of the tournament now in their rearview mirror, the Buckeyes will now look ahead to next weekend’s Sweet 16 in Boston, where they’ll meet up with the winner of Sunday’s matchup between No. 3-seed Florida State (25-9, 12-4 ACC) and No. 11-seeded Cincinnati (25-10, 12-6 Big East). Regardless of who wins Sunday’s game between the Seminoles and the Bearcats, Thomas said that his team doesn’t care who stands in the way it advancing past the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007.
“I’m going to enjoy this win right now,” Thomas said. “We're back to the Sweet 16, and now we’re just trying to get farther and farther.”
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